Joe Rochefort's War

The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway

by Elliot Carlson and Donald Showers

Hardcover, 572 pages, Naval Inst Pr, List Price: $36.95 | purchase

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Title
Joe Rochefort's War
Subtitle
The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway
Author
Elliot Carlson and Donald Showers

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Book Summary

This first biography of the U.S. naval officer responsible for breaking the Japanese Navy's code prior to the Battle of Midway follows his frustrations and success in tracking the enemy fleet and his disagreements with top brass over Yamamoto's intended invasion target.

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Excerpt: 'Joe Rochefort's War'

Chapter 13: Air Raid Pearl Harbor!

This is the end of the Japanese Empire as we know it.

— Joe Rochefort

Around 7:20 Sunday morning, just as Rochefort was packing the car for a family picnic, a single-engine Japanese reconnaissance plane entered the bright, cloud-streaked airspace over Pearl Harbor. Launched earlier that morning from the heavy cruiser Chikuma, the plane circled as the pilot studied the ground below. He must have been astonished at the tranquil scene. The only thing that would have bothered him was the absence of carriers — as luck would have it, all three with the Pacific Fleet were on duty elsewhere.

Having seen all he needed to see, at precisely 7:35 the recon pilot radioed his report to the striking force, which quickly relayed the information to the Japanese planes now approaching Oahu from the north: "Enemy formation at anchor; nine battleships, one heavy cruiser, six light cruisers are in the harbor."

The dispatch was a calculated risk, requiring the pilot to break radio silence. Hawaii's defenders might have gotten a jump on the kido butai's rapidly nearing warplanes — now twenty minutes behind the Chikuma plane — if an alert or lucky radioman had picked up that transmission. The likeliest place where this could have happened was Rochefort's listening post at Heeia. His radiomen had their earphones on, but they were tuned to other frequencies. Hypo's Tex Biard, having just relieved fellow linguist Gilven Slonim, was still listening for the winds execute message, while Heeia's regular operators searched for messages in Japan's version of Morse code. They weren't listening for airplanes over Pearl Harbor.

"The transmissions by the Chikuma plane were quite brief and it would have been nothing short of [a] miracle had they been intercepted," Hypo cryptanalyst Tommy Dyer said later. "They were no doubt in code and very little if any traffic in the appropriate air-surface code had been intercepted."

There were other indications of trouble this morning. In the pre-dawn hours south of Oahu, officers on board the destroyer Ward noticed a peculiar object trailing the supply ship Antares, moving slowly toward the Pearl Harbor entrance. The Ward's captain, Lieutenant William Outerbridge, recognized it as a submarine. At 6:40 a.m., he ordered his gunners to open fire. They did, causing the sub to heel over and sink. Outerbridge did his best to alert Pearl. He radioed in a message — which started making its laborious way up the Navy's chain of command to Admiral Kimmel.

Twenty minutes later, Army privates Joseph L. Lockard and George E. Elliott were winding up their morning shift running the Opana mobile radar unit at Kahuku Point on the northern tip of Oahu, 230 feet above sea level. They were about to shut down when the two privates noticed a strange image on the oscilloscope. Lockard checked the machine and found nothing wrong with it. The blip was huge and closing fast on Oahu, leading the men to think "it must be a flight of some kind."

Bewildered by the spectacle, Elliott called the Army's Information Center at Fort Shafter. After negotiating his way through the switchboard, finally he reached Lieutenant Kermit Tyler, the pursuit officer and assistant to the controller on duty. Tyler knew something that Elliott and Lockard didn't: a flight of B-17 bombers was due in shortly from the U.S. mainland. Figuring they had picked up the B-17s, he told the two privates, "Well, don't worry about it."

* * *

The Rocheforts were slow getting started Sunday morning. After several grueling weekends spent in the basement or near the phone at home, Rochefort had decided to give himself and his family a holiday. He thought he'd take everyone — Fay, Janet, and Cora — on an outing as far from the basement as they could get. Fay had already packed up the steaks, and Joe had loaded the cooler in their old 1937 Buick. But Joe lagged behind. "I had a premonition that something was wrong," he said later.

Ten miles away at Pearl Harbor, the Navy yard was slowly coming to life. A day off for most military personnel, Sunday was a workday at Hypo. In the basement of the admin building, Tommy Dyer was finishing an unusually long twenty-four-hour stint, the result of rearranging his schedule so he could attend his son's piano recital Friday. Nearby were Captain Lasswell and Radioman First Class Tony Ethier. Scheduled for basement duty at 8 a.m. were Ham Wright and John Williams, now finishing breakfast at the submarine base wardroom, about a mile away.

Across the harbor on Battleship Row — a gleaming spectacle of steel stretching along the southern bank of Ford Island — officers and men on board the huge warships awaited Sunday morning colors. Bands on each ship were poised to play the "Star Spangled Banner." On board the California, Seaman Second Class Mike Palchefsky, a trumpeter with the ship's twenty-member band, stood in formation. "We were getting ready to play," he recalled. "We were waiting for the signal which was a flag being hoisted on the Pennsylvania, way out in the dry dock."

The flag was never hoisted. "As we were standing waiting for the signal, we heard this sound of many engines, sounds I hadn't heard before," Palchefsky said. "So, we're looking around and we look up and the noise gets louder and right out of the clouds comes this Japanese dive bomber." Moments later, "a bomb fell out of the plane and landed right on Ford Island," said Palchefsky, who had just witnessed the kido butai's first strike against Pearl Harbor, officially timed at 7:55 a.m. "Everything happened in a matter of seconds," Palchefsky remembered. "I just took off."

Excerpted from Joe Rochefort's War: The Odyssey of the Codebreaker Who Outwitted Yamamoto at Midway by Elliot Carlson by permission from the Naval Institute Press. Copyright 2011 Elliot Carlson. All rights reserved